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The Buffalo Nickel

By R.W. Julian


The year 1998 was the 60th anniversary of the Jefferson nickel, but few have noted that this same year was also the 85th anniversary of the Buffalo nickel. Thirty-five years ago, the Buffalo nickel was second only to the Lincoln cent in popularity among collectors, and perhaps someday this will be true again.

Early in 1911, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh’s son wrote to him suggesting that there be a new design on the five-cent piece. The son had read the law which stipulated a coin design could not be changed more often than every 25 years, and had noted that the magic date arrived for the nickel in February 1908. MacVeagh had assumed office under President William Howard Taft in March 1909, and missed all the excitement when President Theodore Roosevelt managed to get several top artists to redesign the cent and gold coins. He decided that he could produce something just as electrifying as the Saint-Gaudens double eagle—and he was very nearly right.

One of the most interesting aspects of this whole Buffalo nickel affair of 1911–1912 is that Philadelphia Mint officials were kept more or less in the dark. Why this was done is not quite clear, but perhaps MacVeagh knew of the difficulties caused by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber over the double eagle design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1908.

The Secretary used the same technique employed by Roosevelt, in that he hired an artist of international caliber. At first there was some confusion when the artist, James Earle Fraser, started on a new Lincoln head for the cent. All was straightened out within a few weeks, and Fraser then began work on the Buffalo nickel. (MacVeagh had decided what was to appear on the two sides of the coin—after clearing his ideas with the President—and it was Fraser’s job to satisfy the Treasury.)

Apparently, different people in the Treasury were issuing conflicting orders, because in the latter part of 1911 we find Fraser again working on a revised Lincoln portrait. MacVeagh learned of this dual effort and ordered forthwith that the Indian Head nickel be Fraser's sole concern—period.

The preliminary sketches were very impressive and Mint Director George Roberts, who also had held that post when President Roosevelt revamped the coinage, was highly enthusiastic. For his Indian head, Fraser used living models—something virtually unheard of in an era when the classical profile from Greece or Rome was considered the highest ideal of art. Three different Indians—Iron Tail, Two Moons and Chief John Big Tree—sat for this famous composite likeness. The finished portrait possesses great character, and shows the rugged individuality of the American Indian.

Black Diamond, a bison (usually called a "buffalo" in this country) from the Central Park Zoological Garden in New York, was the model for the reverse. Fraser placed the buffalo on a mound, giving the appearance of strength and majesty.

Although the designs were, on general principle, quickly approved by the Secretary, quite some time passed while various officials argued among themselves how the legends should appear on the coin. By June 26, 1912, Mint Director George E. Roberts had tentatively approved plaster models of the new five-cent coin—although he did request that Fraser lower the relief somewhat.

During the summer of 1912, all was going well with the models and the artist was getting very close to a finished product. Then an evil knight—or so it must have seemed to Fraser—entered the lists. The Hobbs Company of New York, a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines, found out about the planned design change on the five-cent piece.

The company made its first inquiries in July 1912, but it was not until August that matters became difficult. Bringing political pressure to bear, the vending-machine firm managed to get an order from the Treasury requiring Fraser to work with it on his design. MacVeagh must have wished by this time that his son had kept his thoughts to himself.

Over the next several weeks, a series of disputes broke out between Fraser on one hand and Hobbs’ engineers on the other. The latter began to make impossible demands (from Fraser’s viewpoint) and the artist complained to the Treasury about what he regarded as gross interference in his work. Finally, in December 1912, Secretary MacVeagh grew tired of the bickering and ordered that Fraser be allowed to complete the work and then send the plasters to the Mint.

The models went to Chief Engraver Barber, who oversaw the preparation of dies and the striking of pattern coins early in January 1913. The chief engraver was cooperative in the whole matter—which was sporting of him, considering that his Liberty Head design was the one being replaced. Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John H. Landis was able to notify Directory Roberts that coinage would begin toward the end of the month. According to the coining room foreman, the new design actually struck up better than the old one.

Fraser now began to get his frayed nerves calmed after the difficult battle with the Hobbs Company. He should have kept his guard up, because one of the pattern pieces fell into the hands of the Hobbs people and the war resumed with fresh intensity. Changes once more were demanded, and the Mint Bureau agreed. Working at top speed, Fraser executed a fresh set of plasters which managed to incorporate the changes yet did not sacrifice the artistry of the work. Dies were quickly produced by Barber, and a few patterns were struck on January 21. These had been a hectic several days for the artist.

A Hobbs engineer arrived on the 21st to confer with the artist and Mint officials. He informed all concerned that the new patterns were acceptable with one minor exception, and that the company could easily adjust its machines to remedy this. Fraser relaxed once more but when the engineer returned to company headquarters in New York, Hobbs’ officials did an abrupt about-face. The company now wrote the Mint that the latest pattern was totally unacceptable—and produced a long list of additional changes that also would have to be made.

Fraser complained to MacVeagh about the circus-like atmosphere. MacVeagh tended to agree, and asked Mint Director Roberts to settle the matter quietly by not asking the artist to do anything more. Roberts saw the matter differently and ordered Fraser to work on the latest list of Hobbs’ demands. It was now nearly the middle of February 1913, and there was no end in sight.

The artist complained again to the Treasury, and MacVeagh set up a conference for February 15. He listened patiently to all sides of the controversy, but then simply ordered an end to the matter and a start-up of coinage with the current models. Within a matter of days, coinage began at Philadelphia and dies were sent to the two other mints. It was soon discovered that the words FIVE CENTS at the base of the reverse would wear down too quickly in circulation, and the chief engraver decided to address the matter himself. He drew a line across the lower part of the coin and put the denomination under that, removing the mound in the process. It was not very aesthetic, and surely another way could have been found.

As with all first issues, the public saved the very first coins released—in this case the ones with the raised ground—and generally ignored the later ones (those with the revised reverse). As a result, the 1913-S Variety II commands a higher premium than other Buffalo nickels of that year. While the collector may expect to spend from $10 to $75 for one of the other 1913 pieces in Extremely Fine condition, the 1913–S in the same grade commands about $200.

Nickel proof coinage from 1913 through 1916 was popular at first with collectors, but eventually the dull matte finishes grew tiresome for those who liked the mirrorlike old-style proofs. Because of declining sales, the Mint simply quit producing proof coins for sale in 1916. There is considerable demand at present for such coins, and they bring about $1,200 to $2,200 each in Proof–65 grade, depending upon the date. Collectors should take great care in buying matte proof coins of this period. Any Buffalo nickel proof of the early years should be authenticated by an expert prior to purchase.

Barber redesigned the obverse of the nickel in 1916 by lowering the relief of the head and strengthening several details, including the nose. In addition, the lettering of the word LIBERTY was made heavier.

Most nickels of this period are relatively easy to locate for a collection, although in a few cases prices are high for upper-level coins. The most interesting piece of this era is the famous 1918/17 overdate from the Denver Mint. One can easily spend $1,000 for this coin in Fine condition, while in XF the price range is between $4,000 and $4,500. It is the key coin of the entire series.

During the 1920s, as a result of the massive World War I coinages, there was decreased demand for coins of all kinds—and the nickel was no exception. No nickels were struck in 1922, and even the 1921-S is a very scarce coin; only 1.6 million were produced. In About Uncirculated–50, one can expect to pay in the vicinity of $850 to $900 for this coin.

Buffalo nickels of the 1920s often are found poorly struck. Apparently, Mint technicians were ordered to make dies last as long as possible in order to save money. For this reason, the obverse and reverse dies were set a bit further apart than usual and many weak strikes resulted. Well-struck Buffalo nickels of some issues (such as the 1925–D) are very difficult to locate.

The strong economy of the late 1920s created a mini-boom in nickel coinage. For that reason, the collector can easily obtain most date-and-mint combinations without a great deal of expense. Some can be purchased for as little as $5 in XF- 40.

The advent of the Great Depression put a sudden damper on the coinage of nickels. The only such coinage from 1931 through 1933 was a small striking of 1.2 million pieces at San Francisco in 1931. But these were heavily saved by collectors and dealers, and today the 1931-S brings a very nominal price (about $24 in AU-50), considering its rarity. By a quirk of fate, the number of nickels struck at San Francisco in 1931 was larger than would have otherwise been the case. In the latter part of the year the Bureau of the Mint notified San Francisco officials that not enough pieces had been made and the last few weeks of the year should see a higher rate of coinage for this denomination. The Bureau was concerned that collectors would complain if too few were produced!

Beginning in 1934, coinage of the nickel picked up considerably. As late as 1960, it was still possible to find in circulation nearly every date and mint after 1925 in decent condition, usually Very Good or better. Even the more common dates from the earlier years were relatively easy to find.

Being on a relatively high and exposed area of the coin, the date on the Buffalo nickel tended to wear and even disappear in circulation. During the 1950s, there was so much interest in the rare dates that companies began producing, for sale to collectors, a special kind of acid which ate away the metal around the missing date until it appeared. Many scarce dates before 1930 were found in this way, but there is little value to these "restored" rarities, since they have been damaged by the acid treatment.

The most interesting nickel from the 1930s is the 1937-D with a three-legged buffalo. One of the reverse dies had become damaged, and a workman reground it a little too vigorously, managing to wear away part of the design. This is most noticeable in the absence of one of the buffalo's front legs. There is good demand for this oddity of the minting process, and a nice example in XF–40 is worth about $400.

By December 1937, it was decided to strike the Buffalo nickel only at Denver in 1938. At least three reverse dies already given the "S" mintmark were then overpunched with a "D." Coins with the overmintmark are not particularly scarce and can be obtained for a nominal sum, about $25 in AU-50.

Proof coinage began again in 1936, and proof Buffalo nickels of this and the following year are very popular with type collectors in particular, since these are the only dates in the 1930s for which proofs are obtainable—and the only ones at all with a mirror finish.

Buffalo nickel coinage ended in 1938, and by the late 1960s few were to be seen in circulation. It was the end of a series of coins that deserves more collector interest.

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